Last week in assembly, Liz Burke ’19 presented “Dance as a Means for Social Change” and showcased her work entitled “Fire Escape Falling Together,” a site-specific piece that explores how humans find each other in times of need and when they fall, friends fall together. She dedicated the piece to victims of bullying, especially those who may still be in isolation, so that they may know they will be found. A video of her work is below as well an excerpt/ paraphrase from her speech.
Dance as a Means for Social Change
By Liz Burke
The state of the dance industry in America is grim. Dancers often work for far below minimum wage, dance companies still operate under a patriarchal hierarchy rampant with sexual manipulation and abuse, and in order to survive financially, dancers endure long demanding days that lead injuries. Unlike in European countries, there are no government subsidies for working artists, not even for those concurrently seeking an education. The unions hardly alleviate costs of daily classes for its members and they continue to be an un-unified, regressive scam.
I would like to offer a poem by Marissa Perel entitled I Want/I Vomit, where she explores a binary of feelings about the state of the industry. I feel that nothing I can say would be as telling, encompassing, and powerful as this piece.
So I just gave you a pretty grim image. But my hope is that at least you have a deeper understanding of the sacrifices artists make for their work, especially in this society that nearly prevents them from doing their jobs and living a life. Sometimes I feel the need to, as Mr. Riker says it, do some “Art-splaining” when I hear people passing judgment on artists life choices when they don’t know a thing about that experience.
Many industries in America are feeling the power of the #MeToo movement and the dance industry is not exempt. The most recent accusation involves former teen and rising star Miko Fogarty. After winning top prizes at competitions around the world and being featured in the 2011 ballet documentary First Position, Fogarty landed her dream job at the Birmingham Royal Ballet only to leave the ballet world completely after her first season with no explanation. But, perhaps we now have the answer. Earlier this year, Fogarty’s former dance coach world renowned Viktor Kabaniaev was jailed for 16 counts of sexual assault against children. According to a KQED interview, “when Miko heard the news about her former coach, she said she was shocked but not surprised. She said he assaulted her when she was 13, [however,] Miko said it had nothing to do with her decision to quit ballet.” If this wasn’t the sole reason she could convince herself to leave, then there is something really wrong happening here.
We are beginning to see social progress. Before the New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala, principal dancer Teresa Reichlen addressed the audience in regards to the scandal involving three male dancers and company contributors and claims of inappropriate behavior that unfolded over the summer. She said, “We will not put art before common decency, or allow talent to sway our moral compass. We strongly believe that a culture of equal respect for all can exist in our industry.”
Artists throughout history have used their work as a means for social change. This summer, while studying the dance industry in a course at Barnard College, I learned about Alvin Ailey, an American modern dancer and choreographer who started an all-black dance company in New York during the Civil Rights Movement. His masterpiece Revelations set to spiritual hymns sparked social change during the ‘60’s and is still performed regularly today. You can view it in its entirety here.
Today we are seeing dancers inspire change through #movethevote. In collaboration with photographer Rachel Neville, dancers launched a campaign to get people to the polls. Per the website, “We’re not asking for money or for allegiance to a particular candidate. Instead, we need you to make images that will move people to feel, to act, and most importantly, to vote in the midterm elections on November 6. Art can change the way people think. It can also move people to vote.”
Tony and Bessie Award-winning artist Robbie Fairchild recently collaborated on a short film entitled Enough!. The piece features young dancers of color from the National Dance Institute in Harlem addressing the fear that school shootings can inhibit in students. Fairchild felt an obligation to spread a message about school shootings as “the headlines are becoming the norm”. This piece is a call-to-action for those who can vote to do something for the students who can’t, the next generation.
The Dansuer Documentary tackles the stereotype that all male dancers are gay, feminine, weak, and sissies. The documentary tells the story of wildly successful professional dancers like James Whiteside, Derek Dunn, and Harper Waters, as well as some students. They reflect on their experiences dealing with bullying in school, something that unfortunately drives many male dancers to quit their training.
With Youtube and the internet, we are able to see more dance at our fingertips than ever before. With that, we are seeing more choreography from Hip Hop and Contemporary artists like Jojo Gomez and Galen Hooks producing extremely provocative and emotional work for the mass media about abuse of all kinds and female empowerment for the youngest of dancers in their classes.
To close, I wanted to share with you the version of a story my teacher, Ms. Elisabeth, told me. She recalled being told about the first performance of the ballet the Rite of Spring by Ballet Russe in Paris. After the performance, the audience was outraged by the radical music, choreography, and costuming that they accused the artists of being pagans and rioted throughout the city.
“Now I don’t think Elisabeth was trying to get us to get the people of downtown Bethlehem to riot after seeing the variation we were working on, but she was trying to get us to understand in our third hour of class on a Thursday night that our dancing should evoke some feeling and spur some ambition in our audience, one that hopefully aligns with the choreographer’s vision. She told us we were special for being among a select population that can do that for people. She told us we were special. I don’t know how it is in your arts programs but my one teacher told me last night and tells us nearly every day that we will never be perfect and makes us feel like we aren’t ever good enough and so it was so shocking that she called us special and important and vital to the human experience. It is not often that dance is portrayed in such a positive light when there are so many abuses in the industry that young people, for generations, have been forced to accept. I am happy to tell you all that you all shouldn’t have to fear that anymore, and just sit back and let it happen. The industry is changing. There is more and more radical dance being produced and accepted in its own time, and that goes for art of all disciplines.
You Are Special, Please Go Make Art
Artists in the audience, as I know there are beautifully many of you, you are special. Please keep breaking all of the rules and making art that is really your own. Your stories are going to be accepted now, so please bring them to the forefront of everyone’s radar because you deserve to be heard. Please don’t forget to honor those who have come before you who have made sacrifices to their reputation, to their opportunities and connections for you to be able to make art freely and present it. And keep us moving forward. It is a crazy important and pivotal time. Please vote today if you are able. Please make crazy art today if you can’t.”